Returning From Saturn: Why Your 31st Birthday Is Better Than Your 30th

Happy 31st birthday to me. Here’s why I’m a million times happier.

My feet were bathed in moonlight as I sat on the edge of my bed, having a full-on panic attack.

I knew, with full certainty, that I was about to die.

It was the wee hours of a late November morning in 2016. My boyfriend and my cat snored in chorus next to me, entirely oblivious to my frantic, anxious state. The moonlight, filtered through the window blinds of our Brooklyn apartment, shone icy-white stripes on my feet. Bent over on myself, I took deep breaths to slow my heartbeat, focusing on those shards of lunar light, and tried to pinpoint what, exactly, was causing my epic freakout.

As one of 40 million Americans living with anxiety, it’s not uncommon for me to wake up most mornings with a racing heart, sweaty palms, and a general sense of dread, like something awful is about to happen– even when things are perfectly fine. On the surface of that November morning, things were fine. I had a committed partner who loved me and supported me, our batty, lovable cat, and a great job as a social media manager for a startup publication. Money wasn’t much of a worry anymore. No one in my immediate friends and family circle was sick or dying or experiencing horrendous personal tragedy.

I blinked tears from my eyes.

What was so wrong?

I couldn’t figure it out that November morning. But a few weeks later found me on my 30th birthday, having that same panic attack in the middle of dinner. My special birthday dinner. At a loud, famous, overpriced seafood restaurant of my choosing. I chose it for its fame, and it was always going to be overpriced, because New York, but the loudness I didn’t account for. My fragile mental state collapsed around the idea that my evening wasn’t going to be what I expected, in terms of atmosphere and ambiance. And that found me crying into my oyster appetizer, as my exasperated boyfriend gave up on trying to reason me out of my foul mood. We went home early, and I don’t even remember going to bed.

Reader, it was at this point I realized something was horribly, terribly, inescapably wrong. And I needed to fix it, because otherwise, I feared I’d fall off some sort of mental and emotional ledge from which there was no return.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: right around the time of that November panic attack, Trump won the presidential election. And post-election came my horrific realization that, as a country, America was not as advanced or progressive as I had (foolishly) assumed. Like when you’re fitted with an updated eyeglass prescription, the unmoored-feeling post-election day were like a new set of lenses. I was viewing everything in greater and harsher detail. Sexism and misogyny were as prevalent as ever, the gender wage gapstill existed, and Congressional Republicans were hell-bent on legislating my, and every woman’s, reproductive rights out of existence. (To say nothing of their desire to curtail immigration based on religious grounds, drive health care into the ground, and give greater tax breaks to the 1%.) For the first time in my young, privileged, white life, I felt like a second-class citizen being taken out for target practice.

But my youthful naiveté was meeting its match on my birthday. Because that birthday was my 30th birthday, and I was reckoning with the past decade’s parade of job losses, bad relationships, crappy apartments, and various other trappings and accoutrements of a twenty-something millennial lifestyle. I’d been brought up with awards and accolades galore; many simply participatory, as was pat in public schools of the 90’s and 00’s. Others were decidedly earned: state championships in theatrical makeup and costume design, writing awards. I got good grades. I got my college degree. I was expected to succeed, gloriously, as an adult.

I fell flat on my face, hardcore. This happened for a couple of reasons:

  1. I do not envy anyone born like me. That is to say, born creative. Born with the certainty that not only are you wholly strong-willed and independent, but also with the audacity to claim your viewpoint should be heard, by many people, in the medium by which you choose to communicate it. Mine’s words. Yours could be in music or painting. And, as everyone knows, creative pursuits aren’t in the same salary bracket as, say, a software engineer, or a doctor. To choose a creative life involves financial struggle, until if and when you “make it”, in the Stephen King/J.K. Rowling/Nicholas Sparks echelon of “making it”. This is sort of a binary way of looking at it –there are many middle-class writers– but the idea that a creative life is a path of much resistance is a fundamental truth.
  2. In the name of making money, I quashed my creative side. Or rather, I shunted it into a variety of ill-fitting jobs. Transmuting my writing ability into social media, email campaigns, and other marketing initiatives seemed smart, practical, and do-able. Never mind that I’d never taken a marketing class in my life, or that math was my kryptonite. I learned how to do these jobs while on the job, but I always felt like a phony, a fraud. I could never say with certainty why a campaign earned the results it did, whether it was a positive or negative outcome. As a result, I never felt comfortable or confident in the workplace.

This recipe was catastrophic for my identity. It’s obvious, in hindsight. But I didn’t figure it out until May of this year. And by “figure it out”, I mean someone else figured it out for me.

In a professional “Eat, Pray, Love” sort of move, I had hired a life coach. She was like Dumbledore meets Leslie Knope, and she knew exactly what was wrong within five minutes of meeting me.

“You’re an artist, and you’ve suppressed your creativity for years. But what is it you want to do?” she asked me, during what I jokingly called my “spirit quest”, aka a three hour session on a sunny day in Bryant Park.

“I want to write,” I replied. “It’s all I’ve ever really been good at.”

“Great! What do you want to write?”

“… I don’t know.”

“Come with me.”

She marched me across the street, to a bookstore. She bought me a copy of “The Artist’s Way.” Then she sent me on my way–pun intended.

“Call me when you’ve written your first book. We’ll go from there.”

Then she disappeared into the shimmery heat of Midtown.

I didn’t know what I was going to write when I got home that day. I didn’t know in the weeks that followed, either. I read “The Artist’s Way”, I completed the exercises. Little by little, lightning bolts of ideas began to strike. Ideas for articles, short stories, and yes, books.

If I hadn’t lost my job –oh yes, I got the boot right before I hired my life coach– then I probably wouldn’t be sitting here, on my couch in Brooklyn. It’s my office most days. I write a little of everything. Quizzes, viral news, and lately, some interviews and reported pieces for larger outlets. (I’d share links if I could. I’m waiting for at least three stories to be published, at present.) I’m applying to grad school, to obtain my master’s in journalism. Things are happening, movement is occurring. I’m eyeing reporting jobs right now. It all feels good.

Middle of the night panic attacks are no more. I still get anxious, but my death isn’t a constantly-impending doom, hanging all over me like a skeezy dudebro at the bar.

I don’t know where I’m going, precisely, but it’s in the general vicinity of correct.

In astrology, the return of Saturn is a “phenomenon thought to occur when the planet Saturn returns to the same point in the sky it was in when you were born. These “returns” signify a person’s transition into a new stage of life… It can be a two-year period of hard work, paying dues and figuring out what we want to do with our lives for the next 28 years or so.”

Essentially, around your 28th to 30th birthday, Saturn’s return causes a period of turmoil and change in your life. Because you’re literally figuring out what you’re going to do with yourself: geographically, emotionally, spiritually, and yes, professionally.

Or, as I like to think of it, a giant cosmic bear trap.

A bear trap that makes you a stronger, smarter, confident, and well-rounded human, once it releases you from its rusty, soul-sucking jaws.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from all of this, a tidy sound bite to wrap up eight years of the deepest, darkest winter of my spiritual discontent, it’d be this:

…actually, I don’t know. My only advice is trite and cliché: Be Yourself. Don’t Give Up. Reach For The Stars.

But underneath the cloying sweetness of those office motivational poster phrases is a fundamental truth.

You only get one shot on this rock hurtling through an ever-expanding universe.

Don’t waste it.